Emmanuel Onwubiko: False information and indifference of gatekeepers
Nigeria is right now on tenterhooks due largely to massive threats of attacks by armed non state actors. However, misinformation and disinformation targeting certain top office holders by certain money bags embedded inside of the Presidential office in Abuja against persons they perceived as rivals is stoking up security concerns and causing panic amongst the civil population.
The National Security Adviser Major General Babagana Monguno(rtd) was once quoted in the media as alleging that immediate past service chiefs can’t account for the one billion dollars released for weapons. But he immediately debunked this same toxic information twenty four hours later but already his first misinformation has spread like wild fire thus making a lot of Nigerians go with the misperception that some or all of the former service Chiefs are unpatriotic and are not accountable for the resources in their care even when it is clear that procurements are handled essentially by the Ministry of Defence.
This toxic misinformation has continued to be used by rumour mongers who seek to tarnish the good name of those service chiefs who did so well that President Muhammadu Buhari went ahead to post them to other Countries as Ambassadors including the then chief of Army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai who is the Nigeria’s Ambassador to Benin Republic.
Bad or negative journalism is sharply on the rise in Nigeria, and it is given the wings by social media. Many quacks hide in the labyrinths of social media and citizen journalism. Here is new journalism conducted by people who are not professional journalists but who disseminate information using websites, blogs, and online media.
In Nigeria, this type of journalism has been deployed by individuals who have turned out to mostly specialize in quackery, thus perpetrating bad journalism by failing to report important news, or reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly.
Bad or negative journalism can leave people dangerously uninformed and misinformed. What the person of former Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai has gone through in the hands of this kind of fake journalists, if they must be called that, mirrors typically what this treatise intends to address. The level of disinformation and misinformation through many online media channels suffered by many patriotic citizens such as Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai and many innocent Nigerians is becoming quite horrifying and the statutory regulatory agencies such as the Nigerian Press Council, the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Nigerian Guild of Editors are yet to get to the top of the situation.
These bodies set up in anticipation of retrogressive and gutter journalism and to maintain high standards in the practice of journalism in Nigeria are yet to appreciate the security implications of unethical journalistic practices by these quacks who are simply hack writers that upload fabricated tales against perceived opponents of their paymasters.
Since citizen journalism has come to stay due to the advent of the Internet, the need to educate practitioners and bloggers on the far-reaching implications of cyberbullying and fake news has equally been heightened. If citizen journalism is not responsibly practised as is now dominated by quacks who carry out hatchet jobs against respectable and patriotic Nigerians, a despotic government may seize the opportunity created by the excesses to churn out anti-press freedom legislations and clamp down on the media generally.
Increasingly, unbiased journalism is getting tough to get in Nigeria even in the mainstream media, and the worst part remains that many innocent Nigerians like General Buratai and others are victims of this growing trend. The hack and quack journalists tend to feed people with falsehood and subtly take a side and make their victims objects of hate in the public space. This is culminating in one of the most devastating aspects of journalism being permitted by quality controllers.
It is all the more troubling when the targets of these pen-for-hire journalists are citizens who had put their lives on the line to protect and defend the country such as General Buratai. Good journalism is supposed to hold communities together in times of crisis such as Nigeria is facing at the moment, providing the information and the images that enhance citizens’ shared destiny. Fact is: if the country is destroyed, the given arena for the practice is equally destroyed and the future truncated.
This low ebb journalism also has nothing to do with freedom of the press, which along with rule of law, is one of the pillars and bedrocks of democracy. Press freedom has nothing to do with bad journalism and fake news. For the avoidance of doubt, fake news is false or misleading information presented as news. Fake news often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person as seen in Buratai’s case.
Although false news has always been spread throughout history, the term “fake news” is relatively new in Nigeria and only recently got some sort of legislative attention. The term does not have a fixed definition and has been applied broadly to any type of false information, not just about high-profile people and any news unfavourable to them but false news generally.
Further, disinformation and misinformation, which is the trade-in mark of online journalists, involves spreading false information with harmful intent and is generated and propagated by hostile actors who are hired by individuals who have an axe to grind with the targeted individuals. Their ploys include click-bait headlines that are often not supported by the text. Such junk Journalism seeks to vilify and humiliate those who question the actions or pronouncements of those they support or who sponsor them.
Still using the Buratai example, it is clear that the prevalence of fake news promoted by quack journalists has increased in Nigeria with the recent rise of social media, and this misinformation and quackery is gradually seeping into the mainstream media.
What is more, such fake news generated for stomach infrastructure can reduce the impact of real news on such good personalities by competing with it. For example, the misinformation (fake news) sponsored against Buratai and many like him by such quack copy-and-paste journalists receive more engagement on social media than top stories from major media outlets. What this means is that such fake news is relegating the actual news and taking over the agenda-setting role of the media.
Again, from the Buratai example, concerned citizens can see that bad journalism is an antithesis of media freedom and is a threat to the flourishing of democracy in our country. Bad journalism is a sort of contrivance of duplicity and is the complete opposite of legitimate news and the ethical exercise of good journalism. In journalism, a hack writer is deemed to operate as a mercenary or ‘pen for hire’, who expresses their client’s political opinions and serve as attack dogs of their paymasters against their hapless targets.
The problem is not Citizen Journalism per se, but its practice in the Nigerian media space. It is supposed to be collaborative media, participatory journalism, or democratic journalism, based upon citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing, and disseminating news and information. But certainly, it should not be allowed to become guerrilla journalism or street/gutter journalism as in our case because it raises the serious issue of the credibility of the media.
Ordinarily, the people formerly known as the audience employing the press tools they have in their possession such as their smartphones to inform one another is not a bad idea. But deploying such tools to commit libel and defamation, as has been happening to General Buratai and many others, is certainly a big problem. And that is why globally, there are some bodies put in place to ensure proper and global best practices. These measures are necessary given that the general public tends to rely on what they read, see or hear in the media. The Fidelity of sources of information is therefore very important.
One major issue about social media is citizen journalism, in which ordinary people participate actively, who are not professional journalists, but are the main creators and distributors of such news or information. It is social media that has provided willing citizens with very simple tools to engage in journalism practice in such a chaotic and unregulated manner in Nigeria.
Citizen journalism should not be confused with community journalism or civic journalism, both of which are practised by professional journalists; collaborative journalism, which is the practice of professional and non-professional journalists working together; and social journalism, which denotes a digital publication with a hybrid of professional and non-professional journalism.
From the former Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai’s example, one can easily see that the phenomenon under reference is tainting professional journalism practice and news management in our nation. This has been the case for the reason that citizen journalism is unregulated, amateur, and haphazard in quality and coverage. Furthermore, citizen journalists have become a major source of concern due to their lack of professional affiliation and requisite training to serve the public credibly.
Multiple strategies for fighting quack journalism in Nigeria have become necessary. That way, the purveyors of fake news and hatchet writers as seen in hack jobs paid for by politicians and some others, will be put in check. Some sort of self-censorship and self-regulation and legally-enforced regulation of social media is now inevitable.
That is why one had expected that the Nigerian Press Council, the Nigerian Union of Journalists and the Nigerian Guild of Editors ought to be doing a lot more to bring about some level of sanity, accountability and control. The Nigerian Press Council receives federally distributed allocation without commensurate professional execution of its mandate.
One of the nine key functions of the Nigerian Press Council is that of monitoring the activities, carried out by the press. The purpose of monitoring the activities of the press is to make sure that, there is compliance by the practitioners and the Nigeria Union of Journalists with the professional code and ethical conduct. Importantly, this function of the council is carried out through some form of content analysis, all to ensure that the ethical conduct, as well as, the professional code of the profession is highly complied with. Since everything media is within this body’s purview and the contemplation of the act setting it up, citizen journalism and its excesses are equally within its ambience.
On an individual scale, the ability to actively confront false narratives, as well as taking care when sharing information can reduce the prevalence of falsified information. However, it has been noted that this is vulnerable to the effects of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and other cognitive biases that can seriously distort reasoning, particularly in dysfunctional and polarised societies such as Nigeria.
Social or online media has become part and parcel of our daily lives as interactive technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, interests, and other forms of expression through virtual communities and networks. However, with the variety of stand-alone and built-in social media services currently available, online journalists are now becoming ubiquitous and shielding a lot of hack and quack writers.
Since there is a wide range of positive and negative impacts when it comes to the use of social or online media, one can only recommend some measure of control and accountability to deal with quackery and hatchet writing contents. Journalists should be made by appropriate statutory bodies to remain professional and rise above and fight fake news with legitimate and balanced news reporting and broadcasting. And quacks should be made to pay for noble characters they assassinate and the reputational damage, which they have brought upon journalism practice in Nigeria.
EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO is head of the HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA and was NATIONAL COMMISSIONER of the NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF NIGERIA.
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